Playing Sidekick to Sid the Science Kid

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating articletoday about the strategies media companies are using to attract preschoolers to their television content. It points out, among other things, that PBS Kids focuses on cognitive development.

As an adviser to Sid the Science Kid, I can attest to the truthfulness of that claim. My role in helping shape the show began with a phone call.  “We’d like you and Moisés (Román, Director of the University Village site of UCLA Early Care and Education) to write the curriculum for the project and to be our educational advisors.”  The call came from Joyce Campbell, Vice President for Children’s Programming at KCET, Los Angeles. The project to which she referred was the brainchild of KCET and The Jim Henson Company, an initial idea that grew into Sid the Science Kid, a television show that now airs nationally on PBS Kids.

When that call came, I admit to being somewhat star-struck.  This was an opportunity to partner with the people who brought Oscar, Ernie, Bert, and the gang into the lives of my young self and, some years later, my preschool children.  Why did people of this caliber want to work with me?  The answer to that question is one of the reasons why we have ended up with an educational approach that is engaging for children and adults and that has been linked to children’s excitement about science and to their learning, both anecdotally and through initial research studies.  Larger-scale research studies are underway.

The reason that Moises and I were asked to collaborate was because we are co-developers of Preschool Pathways to Science, an early childhood science curriculum.  While we both know quite a bit about children’s science learning, we bring complementary expertise. Moises is an education practitioner while I’m a research psychologist, specializing in early cognitive development.

I use the word “collaborate” very deliberately.  It is not always the case that there is a curriculum that guides the production of children’s programs.  If there is, that curriculum might not be written by someone with expertise in the content of the program (in this case science), in young children’s learning and development, or in children’s learning of the particular content domain of the show.  Even if those criteria are met, the curriculum developer might not be invited to stick around and continue to advise on the specific content of each script.

This, happily for me and for our young viewers, is not the experience I have had.  Moises and I, along with science content advisor Chuck Heldebrandt, participate in content brainstorming sessions, develop “science sheets” that guide the writers who generate outlines that are vetted by all concerned parties before a draft script is created.  I continue to be impressed by the ways that the professionals involved work so hard to keep the show’s educational value high while maintaining the sense of joy and silliness that we believe are critical to learning for children and for the adults who learn with them.  It’s not a model that is unique to Sid the Science Kid, but it is one that should underpin any television program that strives to be “educational programming.”

Increasingly, I read about media as a distraction that takes away from children’s time for play and learning.  A kindergarten teacher writes to say that computers have been banned by her school’s curriculum director.  A preschool professional development provider, who uses clips from Sid to model positive teaching practices, assures me that she does not promote the use of TV in the actual classroom.  Does all media deserve this bad rap?  Should it be banned from schools?  Not everyone thinks so.  A number of efforts are underway to research methods by which educational media assets, such as Sesame Street, Between the Lions, or Sid the Science Kid, might be used in homes, museums, and classrooms as tools that encourage learning, not only directly, but as an inspiration for new forms of play and a resource for positive teaching practices when the TV is off.

I promise to return to this conversation in future posts here (and on my blog on the Sid the Science Kid Parents & Teachers web site).  There’s so much more to talk about.  Like Sid, I find that the more I explore the questions that interest me, the more questions I have!

-Kimberly Brenneman

Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

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